Dave Karpa

Camp Fires

by Jim Samuels

It has been almost two weeks since the world as we knew it was so abruptly taken from many of us and changed forever. Just two short weeks and a few short blocks from a society struggling to pick up the pieces from a shattered September morning, the Rangers have gone about their business, almost anonymously, gearing up for the fast approaching October 5th season opener against the Carolina Hurricanes. Many interesting sub-plots have been developing in the story that is Rangers Training Camp 2001.

Some of these happenings have been lost in the shuffle amidst the goings on’s in New York post 9/11/01, but they’ve been quite encouraging to the Ranger brass none the less. This team is showing the effects of a training camp that all of a sudden is not a mere inconvenience for overpaid mercenaries with guaranteed roster spots dictated by large guaranteed contracts. This camp has been a-typical of the last two or three, there’s a much different feel around Rye these days. A healthy competition has emerged at a few key positions and there’s actually several players making the Rangers coaching staff do something they’re not accustomed to doing, make some tough pre-season roster moves. Unlike past years there are several young players with legitimate shots at sticking with the big club, twenty-three year old defensemen Martin Richter has been outstanding combining steady defensive play with the ability to join the rush in the offensive zone. He has been tough in front of his own net and has shown the ability to make a solid first pass out of the Rangers zone, something this team has failed at miserably the past few years.

Sather has rebuilt this Ranger defense that was the achilles heel of this team in previous years. The incumbents Brian Leetch and Vladimir Malakhov are obviously shoe-in’s to be there when the curtain opens, add to that Sather’s two biggest off-season free agent signees, defensemen Igor Ulanov and Dave Karpa, who have both been steady in their pre-season appearances and seem to be a huge upgrade from the oft-injured and always immobile Rich Pilon and Brad Brown. So the first four spots are solidified, that coupled with the fact that the signing of Brian Berard seems to be an eye-test away has this revamped Ranger defense looking like it will make huge strides from the defensive meltdown’s that have become commonplace at the Garden the last few seasons. In an interview between periods of yesterday’s 2-1 come from behind victory of the Flyers, Sather seemed ecstatic at the prospect of adding Berard to the Rangers already over-crowded blueline. “Were absolutely interested in signing Bryan” Sather mused; “Don Maloney watched him skate at the Olympic camps and said he looked outstanding, and his agent Tom Laidlaw has assured me that he’ll pass the NHL mandated eye exam, so sure we’re interested”. That potential signing aside, the competition for the last three spots on the backline are a dead heat at best.

Peter Smrek has been very ordinary and has seemingly lost the grip on the spot he so impressively earned upon his arrival from the Blues last season. You can pencil Darren Van Impe’s name into your opening night lineup, he’s been solid and could turn out to be one of Sather’s best moves of the off-season. Former Hobey Baker award winner Mike Mottau was a regular down the stretch last season, Dale Purinton has shown his usual willingness to stick up for his teammates coming to the aid of Eric Lindros Saturday night on Long Island after Lindros took an elbow to the helmet from Islander goaltender Garth Snow. Purinton hammered Snow in a show of toughness and camaraderie not often displayed by Ranger teams in the recent past. Add to that the impending return of the injured Tomas Kloucek and Sylvain Lefebvre as well as Richter’s emergence and the Rangers backline is suddenly a couple of things you have not been able to call it in recent years, deep and talented.

Head coach Ron Low also has a nice dilemma on his hands in another area that was thought to be a glaring weakness heading into camp. The Rangers goaltending situation has seemingly solidified itself during the first five games of this condensed exhibition schedule in which the Rangers have gone 3-1-1. Dan Blackburn has proven that he’s NHL ready with solid performances against the Devils and Islanders this past week. The unorthodox Peter Skudra always seems to find a way to stop the puck and the likely Hartford bound Johan Holmqvist has impressed thus far after some sub-par work during a mid-season call up last year. Mike Richter started his first game in 7 months on Sunday against the Flyers and was outstanding in his period and a half of work. He stopped former Ranger Jan Hlavac on a penalty shot in the first period, one of his 17 saves, en-route to earning first star of the game honors in his return from his second ACL surgery in as many years.

Up front there doesn’t seem to be as many questions, the Rangers top nine forwards are really no great surprise. The Rangers biggest strength is down the middle where Lindros, Petr Nedved, Mark Messier and Mike York will vie for playing time with one of either Nedved or York likely to move to the wing. Theo Fleury, Radek Dvorak, Manny Malhotra, Zdeno Ciger, Michal Grosek and Andreas Johansson are likely to round out the top nine or ten barring injury or the possibility of a deal. Dvorak and Malhotra will likely flank Messier on what should be an extremely up-tempo unit. Ciger, who has shown a real nose for the net, will likely be teamed with Nedved and Grosek who has added some much needed grit to his game after a listless debut on Broadway last season. Lindros has meshed very well with Fleury and Johansson who has also impressed offensively with his speed and passing ability that should back off opposing defensemen allowing Lindros to move through the neutral zone without incident.

After that the only other foregone conclusion to make the team is Sandy McCarthy who had a break-out season last year, and has greatly improved his all around game during his tenure with the Rangers. That leaves free agent signee Steve McKenna, Mikael Samuelsson, who hasn’t been very creative offensively as was advertised, Jamie Lundmark whose only chance to stick with the big club rests with the decision to move either Nedved or York to the wing, Jeff Toms, who adds size and toughness, and Richard Scott who has taken on any and all comers thus far, to battle it out for the last spot or two with the big club. Barrett Heisten although impressive seems destined for the Wolf Pack.

These decision’s could be made easier or become even more muddled with the impending waiver draft slated for next week. So it’s easy to see that this Ranger team will be much younger, bigger and faster than the previous unsuccessful editions have been. There is optimism in Rangerland again, hopefully this will lead to results both on the ice and in the standings. Time will tell.

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